Characters, as a rule, should possess agency. They must be capable of changing the course of the plot, of meeting conflict, or else they’re just window-dressing. Normally, this requires that they be mobile, moving from setting to setting as they pursue an agenda, flee danger, or face their enemies. But not always; while it’s a little tricky to pull off, it’s not unheard of for a literary character to never leave their house, something that’s increasingly plausible, since we live in a world where the internet has made never leaving the house is a realistic possibility. Literary shut-ins pose a special challenge for the writer, but when it works, it can be magical—just look at these five shut-ins from some terrific books.
Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane
Lehane’s newest thriller focuses on Rachel Child, a successful television journalist raised by a manipulative mother who doesn’t realize just how damaged she is until an on-air nervous breakdown ends her career. In freefall, Rachel locks herself up in her house and never leaves. With time to think, she wonders about her father, whose identity her mother hid from her, and contacts a private detective to try to identify him. That detective, Brian Delacroix, becomes more than a hire for Rachel—he becomes, she thinks, her lover and salvation. When she begins to suspect he might not be everything he seems, the story really kicks into high gear, an Rachel proves to be a surprisingly dynamic character despite her isolated status.
Bernadette Fox in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is a brilliant, difficult woman living in Seattle with her brilliant, neglectful husband and her brilliant, adorable daughter Bee. Bernadette despises the city, and never leaves the house. At first, Bernadette seems to be simply quirky; she’s obviously very bright and engaged in her community, and when Bee expresses a wish to visit Antarctica, Bernadette perversely throws herself into planning the trip with a gusto slowly revealed to be slightly unhinged. Bernadette’s manic manner, which includes several hilarious exchanges with her slightly befuddled virtual assistant, whom she relies on to carry out the simplest of everyday tasks, slowly builds to the breaking point, and Bernadette stops being a shut-in after all—leading to the extended third act of the novel that inverts everything that has gone before.
Nero Wolfe in The Nero Wolfe series, by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest fictional detectives ever created, a large man with refined tastes who almost never leaves his brownstone in Manhattan—he’s literally an armchair detective. Wolfe relies on his assistant, Archie Goodwin, for all the work done outside his home. Archie is everything Wolfe isn’t—young, handsome, and at ease in the world. Considering Wolfe solves his crimes in the years before the internet, before cell phones—heck, in an age when phones were usually kept in a closet and used relatively rarely—it’s even more incredible he does so simply by listening attentively and examining the physical evidence that can be transported to his house. What’s interesting about Wolfe’s shut-in status is that his house is almost a complete ecosystem catering to his expensive tastes, leading the reader to imagine that Wolfe is choosing to stay inside rather than suffering from any sort of crippling phobia.
Willie Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
Willie Wonka is one of the most famous shut-ins in literature, his status masked by his extravagant appearance, exuberant personality, and the sheer size and scale of the factory he never, ever leaves. Wonka seals himself up inside in order to preserve the security of his recipes and his candy-making secrets, but upon discovering a gray hair, he realizes he isn’t going to live forever, and thus needs a trusted heir to carry on his work. That is the impetus for the famous golden tickets, the subsequent factory tour, and the happy inheritance for good ol’ Charlie—never mind the implication that Charlie is now expected to live the rest of his life inside the factory as well, putting a perfectly Dahl-like sinister spin on the whole wish fulfillment premise.
Ilya Ilyich Oblomov in Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov
It takes about 50 pages for Ilya Ilyich Oblomov to get out of bed and sit in a chair, exhausted by the effort. A rich landlord in the Russian Empire, Oblomov is intended to satirize the lazy, do-nothing lifestyle prized by many Russian aristocrats, and boy-howdy, does he ever. Coddled and indulged his entire life, Oblomov is so removed from the world, he can barely attend to his own interests, and winds up marrying a woman who allows him to enter a second childhood, wallowing in his bedroom and never dealing with any business he finds disagreeable, until he finally achieves his lifelong dream of eternal sleep…by dying in bed. Oblomov is a frustrating and fascinating character, not least because he never considers true change for the simple reason that he is, in fact, living his best life—he really wants to stay in bed and do nothing. Forever.